|Lelene’s chef-owner Juslène Louissant with platefuls of food; (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)|
Spice is right in Haitian cuisine
It has always been a mystery to me: In a city with one of the nation’s largest Haitian communities, why are Haitian restaurants so hard to find? Yes, there are disproportionately few, but good ones that might otherwise get noticed operate under the radar, as vague Caribbean eateries, miscategorized on restaurant sites (as African, Thai). To add to this, they are often uninterested in marketing outside their neighborhoods. It takes some effort to find them, and, for most, to get there. Well, ça vaut la peine (“it’s worth the effort’’).
Lelene’s Restaurant, along with a number of other Haitian eateries, is in Mattapan on Blue Hill Avenue, or what might be the Haitian Main Street of Boston. Chef-owner Juslène Louissant opened Lelene’s in 1992. There is apparently no longer a need for a menu. Customers — pretty much all neighborhood regulars — walk in, seat themselves, and are informed of the day’s dishes, along with a bit of neighborhood gossip.
On my first visit, I seem to puzzle the staff with a request for a menu, the price of various items (you find out at the end; lunch is $7 total), and the cost of a bottle of water (free of course, quand même!). Relax about these mundane details and enjoy chicken braised in epis, a deep-red brothy sauce. In Louissant’s version, tomato paste is sauteed slowly in oil, then in go red bell peppers, garlic, scallion, thyme, and other spices, with enough water to create a complex, subtly spicy braising liquid. The meat becomes fabulously tender, and is served with the traditional riz pois collé, literally “rice stuck to beans,’’ here light (and hardly sticky) with a luxurious jasmine rice.
Instructing the uninitiated on the cuisine, and to Lelene’s odd operation, is not a task the staff here relishes. When I return with a group of seven for dinner, there are resigned glances. One young staffer tries to quietly dissuade us: “I think we are out of food,’’ he says weakly. That brings a stern look from Louissant. “He’s been here before,’’ she says, waving our party over to the largest table. From then on, service is impeccable.
The two main dishes are colorfully plated red snappers, large and fried whole, brought with a bowl of thicker, spicier epis sauce alongside bananes pesées — flattened and lightly fried sweet plantains. Waitresses (even more staff appear!) come next with plates of grillots, cubed roasted pork seasoned with spice and citrus, and pan-fried until just crisp. Both include a portion of cool, spicy slaw known as pikliz. Louissant’s version tosses cabbage with raw sweet onion, lemon, crushed Scotch Bonnet hot pepper, a bit of vinegar, and — at this point she demurs — “some other spices.’’
As excellent as many dishes are, the quality is uneven. There is a Goldilocks situation here where you hope you get the plate that’s just right. At our table, some plates of the grillots are a marvelous match of tender and crisp, others are dry, possibly overcooked. Ditto the plates of fish, which range from perfect (crisp and golden, tender and moist inside) to quite flawed, each fried a bit differently.
Still, Lelene’s, and the neighborhood in general, is a nice trip outside Boston’s usual foodie bubble, and the prices are exceptionally good.
After a third visit, we are greeted by smiles all around, and get to vote on the TV channel.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.